*****The Murder of Harriet Monckton

poison, bottle Arek Socha for Pixabay

By Elizabeth Haynes – If you have people on your holiday gift list who are fans of historical mysteries, this might be just the book for them! Author Elizabeth Haynes stumbled across a trove of documents in the UK’s National Archives relating to an obscure mid-1840s murder in the (then) small town of Bromley, a few miles southeast of London. The coroner’s jury verdict was delayed several years because of the case’s numerous uncertainties and the plethora of suspects.

Haynes uses those uncertainties to create a fictional story that begins from the certain knowledge that on 6 November 1843, Harriet Monckton took or was administered poison, died, and her body stowed in the privy behind the Congregational Chapel. When the next day she’s noted as missing, a search ensues. Even before her body is found, multiple efforts are under way to mislead, mischaracterize, and otherwise frustrate any inquiries.

The story is imagined from the points of view of several real-life people, chief among them: Harriet’s friend, the schoolteacher Frances Williams; Reverend George Verrall, her confidant; Thomas Churcher, a shoemaker in love with her; and Richard Field, Harriet’s former mentor and lover, now married and living in London. Verrall and Churcher are the more obvious suspects, though if a wider net were cast, Williams and Field or even Field’s wife and Churcher’s ex-fiancée might be suspected.

Each of these characters provides an account of their association with Harriet—both in response to the coroner’s questioning and in their private thoughts. It’s a Rashomon-like treatment, with each not only seeing the sketchy facts in different ways, but recounting them to their best advantage. Haynes gives each a distinct voice and point of view, not all admirable. Her slightly old-fashioned writing style helps transport you to the era. All of their views, however revelatory, are one step removed from Harriet herself, but you finally do hear from her directly when Frances reads her diary.

Haynes’s Bromley is completely convincing, as are the reactions of the residents as one secret after another is revealed and as some secrets manage to remain hidden. As the author says, “The impact on my life has been profound, to the extent that I feel as if I have inhabited Bromley in 1843 myself.” I felt it too. Even though the book’s events took place a long time ago, the tension was fresh.

Harriet is a character who isn’t so much described as assembled. Like the build-up of daubs of paint that produce a portrait, Haynes’s text-clues allow you, eventually, to see the dead woman, with all her flaws and vibrancy, as she was in life.

Photo: Arek Socha for Pixabay

Last Books Read in 2019

magician, assistant

***Cairo Modern

Written by Nobel Prize winner Naguib Mahfouz, translated from the Egyptian by William M. Hutchins. This story of how an unscrupulous college graduate gets his comeuppance captures a bygone time in the city and culture. Originally published in 1945, it’s more interesting than entertaining.

*****The Magician’s Assistant

I hadn’t heard of this 1997 book by Ann Patchett, but thankfully another tourist left it behind. It was captivating, start to finish and not the first book I’ve read lately about people involved in creating illusions. Sabine’s magician-husband, a gay man named Parsifal, has died, and soon she learns he’d made up his backstory. Grief-stricken, she tries to connect with his real history. Amazon link.

*****Inland

Téa Obreht’s new book is just great, and she vividly captures the essence and rhythms of America’s Old West. In a lawless, drought-stricken Arizona, a family struggles with the politics of water. Meanwhile, several states east, some bright individual in the US Army decides to import camels to use as pack animals—an experiment with unexpected consequences. Amazon link.

****The Oxford Murders

Billed as “a scholarly whodunit,” this novel by Guillermo Martínez, set in England, provides numerous puzzles for its mathematician protagonists to decipher in order to stop a serial killer. A lot of fun. Amazon link.

***Sharp Objects

Gillian Flynn’s 2006 debut novel is a page-turner, though you may guess early on who’s killing children in the tiny Missouri home town of the protagonist, Chicago reporter Camille Preaker. Camille has spent time in psychiatric care because she carves words into her body, and I found her experience with that even more engrossing than the mystery!

Photo: Enrique Meseguer for Pixabay

****Fishermen of Kérity

fishing nets

By Peter James Quirk – In 1959, when Peter James Quirk’s protagonist Tommy Kiernan goes in search of his past, he finds a more complicated and thrilling story than he’d ever imagined. Only 19 and an American college student from upstate New York, he was born in the English fishing village of Brixham to an elegant French mother and Irish father, now separated.

Two events start his quest. One night recently, a deliberately set fire destroyed Tommy and his mother’s home, and not long afterward, his mother is killed when her car plunges from the mountain highway into a ravine. Suspicion arises that these two events are not unrelated, and Tommy decides he must find out who murdered her. As she is not the type to develop enemies, he believes the killer is someone from her mysterious past.

Clues to her life in Brittany might lie in her beautiful artwork. Tommy finds her journal, sketchbook, and a bit of shocking information. When Breton fishermen helped her escape the Nazis in 1940, she was already pregnant, which means the big Irishman, Francis Thomas Kiernan, isn’t his father after all.

His mother’s painting, Fishermen of Kérity, suggests where to start in trying to fill in the details of her life. Tommy travels to Kérity on the Breton coast, hoping to meet some of Jackie’s long-ago friends. Did any of them survived the war, do they know who his birth father was, and will they talk to him about any of this? Author Quirk does an excellent job evoking the Breton community as the threat of war materializes into invasion, occupation, and retribution. It is a sad, dangerous time.

Quirk, born and educated in England, now lives in the United States. The knowledge of the sea he gained as a fisherman and with the British Merchant Marine gives the book’s scenes on the Breton docks and sailing the French coastline a nice realism. While I enjoyed the historical content that makes up most of the book, the scenes set in 1959 Vermont—Tommy’s romance and his clumsy methods for finding his mother’s killer—are less convincing.

This is a short novel (169 pages), quickly read, and while I had the aforementioned quibble with the 1959 story, on the whole Quirk’s writing style is clear and enjoyable. He has created a memorable tale in a colorful, high-stakes setting.

Photo of fishermen’s nets: Lisa Redfern for Pixabay

****Because You’re Mine

mountain path, woods, forest

By Rea Frey – In Rea Frey’s compassionate new psychological thriller, Lee is a single mom living near Nashville with a seven-year-old son who’s on the spectrum, and her life isn’t easy. She has a couple of things going for her. She has a circle of three good friends, especially her closest friend Grace who’s one of the few people her son Mason is fond of. Mason’s handsome, dedicated occupational therapist Noah is helping him with his small and large motor skills as well as channeling and challenging his amazing intellectual capacity. And, Lee works from home, with a hair styling studio in her garage, which means she’s always close at hand, just in case.

In the book’s prologue, you learn a woman took a nighttime mountain hike and that it ends tragically. No spoiler here: the first words of the book are “She is going to die.” But you aren’t sure which “she” took that fatal tumble. The first chapter rewinds the story to a week before the mountain outing and fills in the missing pieces.

One of the women friends suggests a getaway for the four of them in the North Carolina mountains, and Grace thinks the mountain mini-vacation will be the perfect time to tell Lee some important news, which she does. There’s considerable fallout from this revelation, and an even deeper exploration of how Lee and Grace became the adults they are. While Grace has been preoccupied with her secrets, those that Lee hides are much deeper and more dangerous. Maybe.

In the mountains, the secrets start tumbling out and she—the ambiguous she from the prologue—dies. But that’s not the end of the story, there are layers and layers yet to come, a past to be excavated.

Just when you think you understand this story and the roles of the players on the board, Frey produces another surprise from her characters’ pasts that suggest a totally different dynamic at play. Nor does she tie the ending up with a too-neat bow. An excellent read.

Photo: Cortez13 for Pixabay, creative commons license.

Four for the Road

****A Rising Man

India, dawn, village

Abir Mukherjee’s 2017 debut novel is an easy-to-read police procedural that shares many of the charms of his subsequent novel, A Necessary Evil, which I reviewed some time ago. Set in India around 1920, it provides a probably too-rosy view of the Raj, though many of the social problems, the racism, the unrest are certainly there. Nevertheless, within the frame of Mukherjee’s clever plot, in the end, you come away feeling you know more about the culture and the country than when you opened the book.

****If She Wakes

Michael Koryta’s thriller possesses what might be one plot thread too many, though the inciting event—a murder in which the only witness is injured and suffering from locked-in syndrome—starts the plot moving with a bang. If only she’d come out of it, she might have useful information about the murder. The principal protagonist, an insurance investigator, knows this. The FBI knows it. Her sister knows it. And so do the assassins who want to ensure her silence lasts forever. Medical websites consider locked-in syndrome a “rare neurological disorder,” but it’s not rare in thrillers! Here’s another good one.

*****The Siege of Troy

Yes, that Troy. Theodor Kallifatides uses a Greek classroom in WWII as the setting for a teacher’s inspired retelling of the tale of the Achaeans’ quest to recapture Helen, the frightful battles, the death of Hector, the loss of Achilles, and the cunning horse. Beautifully done, and a pleasure to read!

****The Chain

Adrian McKinty has received considerable publicity with this book, in part because it almost didn’t get written. Author of several excellent police procedurals featuring Catholic Sean Duffy, a detective with the heavily Protestant Belfast police, with all the conflicts that set-up suggests, McKinty had just about abandoned writing. Then comes The Chain, and, while I loved the Belfast books, the premise here is a stretch. On audio, the narrator, January LaVoy, beautifully conveys the fear experienced by frantic parents whose children have been ensnared by The Chain. They cannot get them back without paying a ransom and kidnapping someone else’s child. It’s diabolical, but is it even a bit believable? Hoping he’s back on a roll.

Photos: India (Mario Lapid), Trojan Horse (Ian Scott), creative commons license.

****A Fool’s Journey

By Judy Penz Sheluk – A Fool’s Journey is the third cozy mystery in Canadian author Judy Penz Sheluk’s entertaining Marketville Mystery series. Protagonist Callie Barnstable has assembled an interesting team that works for Past and Present Investigations, to find missing persons.

Genealogical research is the domain of her friend Chantelle Marchand. Former librarian Shirley Harrington conducts online and archival research—if something was ever published, Shirley will track it down. Antique shop owner Arabella Carpenter is occasionally called upon to evaluate a client’s physical evidence, such as old letters, jewelry, and, in this story, tattoo art. Oddest member of the team is Misty Rivers, a tarot reader, who posts surprisingly popular insights drawn from tarot cards on the Past & Present website.

The team’s current case comes to Callie via what a gentle bribe. In her will, Callie’s great-grandmother has asked her to investigate the disappearance of Brandon Colbeck, grandson of great-grandma’s best friend in the nursing home. In 2000, 20-year-old Colbeck left home “to find himself,” taking very little with him and, significantly, leaving behind his identification. If Callie gives her search a good effort, regardless of whether she actually finds Colbeck, she’ll receive her great-grandmother’s legacy.

Over the years, Colbeck’s family has made numerous fruitless attempts to locate him. Nevertheless, they have agreed to cooperate with Callie as she gives it one last try. Their willingness arises in part from a recent telephone call Colbeck’s grandmother received from someone claiming to be the long-lost grandson. Was it Colbeck? Or a scam?

Brandon had a tattoo, which tarot expert Misty recognizes as a portion of the tarot card “The Fool.” Sheluk artfully weaves interesting information about tattooing, tattoo art, and tarot into her story, telling you what you need to know without hindering the action.

In her initial interviews, Callie is convinced each family member is holding out on her. With the help of her team, she determinedly goes about discovering these secrets with determination and considerable savvy and skill. In Callie, author Sheluk has created a competent, conscientious protagonist—the kind of super-responsible person her clients can entrust their secrets to. You learn her likes and dislikes, her strengths and weaknesses, how she spends her day. Sheluk’s clear writing style helps the plot and the discoveries move along briskly, and it’s fun to see how every team member makes her unique and valuable contribution to the investigation.

****Gretchen

By Shannon Kirk – The crime—the first one that is—is kidnapping. Shannon Kirk’s gripping new psychological thriller Gretchen begins with a mother determined to prevent her daughter’s father from kidnapping her. Susan explains to Lucy that he’s from a country where women have no rights and live practically like slaves, and he will do anything—send anyone—to get her back. They’ve been on the run since Lucy was a toddler, never really settling down, and now they are fleeing Indiana, their tenth state.

What will a mother do to protect her child? Live on the fringes of society and be prepared to pack up and leave at any moment. Never engage with anyone or reveal anything about themselves. Never even make eye contact. Susan and Lucy have fake identities, she pays cash for everything, and accesses a hidden stash when they run short.

Now that she’s fifteen, Lucy is tired of the secrets, tired of the hiding, tired of not having friends, exhausted by Susan’s paranoia. Homeschooled until recently, she barely has acquaintances, since she can’t really share personal information with anyone she meets in school. As the book opens, a chance encounter in a park with a man who acts as if he recognizes her forces them to pick up sticks and flee once again.

Susan finds them a rental home in the small New Hampshire town of Milberg. Although the landlord gives off a creepy vibe, Lucy wants to stay, to settle. He lives up the hill in a big brick house and has a daughter her age, Gretchen. Though the girl seems a bit odd, too, maybe she can be a friend. Kirk’s depiction of Lucy, in the chapters she narrates, is a persuasive picture of adolescent psychology. She’s hoping for a friend despite the negative signals, severe and over-confident in her judgments of Susan, silently second-guessing all her own actions.

Kirk expertly handles the ramp-up of tension between Lucy and Gretchen, and it’s a relief when Lucy gets a summer job at the local gourmet grocery store—a rare bit of mom-authorized independence. She won’t go inside Gretchen’s house again, but out-of-doors. Lucy paints while Gretchen works puzzles.

At work one day, Lucy encounters the man who recognized her back in Indiana. Apparently, in an awkward coincidence, he and his son live in Milberg. He recognizes her again. And contrary to every paranoid impulse Susan has drilled into her, Lucy doesn’t tell, even though it could turn out to be the riskiest decision possible. Of  course she’s not the only one with secrets. Susan has a big one, and the landlord, well . . .

Kirk’s flair for description brings his and his daughter’s bizarre lives (and dwelling) vividly to life. They are a stark contrast to the middle-class normality of the Milberg residents Lucy observes from behind her cash register, a normality she’s struggling to become part of. Quite a compelling read!

Puzzle photo: Sephelonor for Pixabay

****No Way to Die

ancient China

By PA De Voe – If you want a total escape from Brexit or US or European politics, PA De Voe’s second-in-series Ming Dynasty Mystery, No Way to Die, will take you back to late 1300s China. As a devoted fan of the Judge Dee mysteries of Robert van Gulik, set six hundred years earlier in the Tang Dynasty, I was delighted to find De Voe’s well-crafted series.

The prose is deceptively simple. No lengthy descriptions, just enough information to let you picture the scene—a style in keeping with both the era in which the stories are set and the heavily verb-dependent Chinese language.

Women’s doctor (and woman doctor) Xiang-hua is asked to serve as coroner to determine whether the mangled body of a stranger found in the village herbalist’s pig pen got there through foul play. Alas, the pig had made a bit of a meal of the man before his body was removed. Numerous males of the community are concerned the sight of the mangled corpse may be too much for the young Xiang-hua. But she does not shrink from the task. Trained as a healer by her grandmother, Xiang-hua is determined to fulfill her obligations (striking a feminist note that resonates in the 21st century). It’s tough, but she’s in possession of herself well enough to discover the dead man, muddy and bloody, had been stabbed in the back.

The local officials want to know the victim’s identity and, if possible, who stabbed him, before they have to report the crime to higher authorities. If they fail to find out, it will likely to bring down the wrath of the bureaucracy, never a pleasant outcome in ancient China, as punishments were plentiful and harsh. This is a prime example of how De Voe uses 700-year-old realities to create situations that adhere to one of the basic memes of modern crime stories: the ticking clock.

The investigation enables a fascinating trip back to a colorful and simpler time, and though the culture was so different, human emotions and motivations are the same across eons. De Voe’s training as an anthropologist and her advanced degree in Asian studies mean that what she writes carries an authority based on deep knowledge of that long-ago culture and society. I’ll be looking forward to more of her excellent tales!

Deathtrap

A good many regular theater goers at some point will have seen Deathtrap, Ira Levin’s supremely popular comedy thriller, which premiered on Broadway in 1978, ran for almost 1800 performances, and was nominated for four Tony awards, including best play. Princeton Summer Theater’s production, directed by Annika Bennett, premiered July 4 (perfect choice for making a bang) and will be on stage at Princeton University’s Hamilton Murray Theater Thursdays through Sundays until July 21.

It’s been so long since I last saw Deathtrap, I’d forgotten the story’s twists and turns and appreciated anew its delicious surprises. This isn’t a play where you want to reveal overmuch about plot except to say Sidney Bruhl (played by C. Luke Soucy) is a formerly successful playwright specializing in murder mysteries. His wife Myra (Kathryn Anne Marie) is increasingly worried about the lack of money coming in and the diminishing prospects for more.

When a cleverly conceived play titled “Deathtrap” arrives unexpectedly from one of Bruhl’s former students, Clifford Anderson, it’s almost too tempting. It would be Bruhl’s perfect comeback vehicle, if only he’d written it! Levin’s dialog is full of jibes at the theater world and its vicissitudes, such as when Myra asks Bruhl “Is [Anderson’s play] really that good?” and he says, “I’ll tell you how good it is. Even a gifted director couldn’t hurt it.”

“Deathtrap’s” author Anderson appears (Dylan Blau Edelstein), a babe who’s wandered into some rather devious woods, as does a famous Dutch psychic (Abby Melick) living nearby, and Bruhl’s attorney (Justin Ramos). The Deathtrap you’re watching, just like Anderson’s “Deathtrap,” conforms to Bruhl’s favorite formula: two acts and a cast of five. All are fine in their parts, with special mention of Marie and Melick.

The play takes to heart Chekhov’s famous admonition that “if in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired.” Guns, maces, swords, a crossbow, knives—Bruhl’s study décor is a catalog of mayhem, with even a pair of trick handcuffs devised by Houdini. The set design is particularly strong, though the costumes were puzzling. (What era?)

When viewing a play forty years on, it’s fair to ask, does it hold up? In this case, the answer is a definite yes. Consider Deathtrap a solid choice for your summer entertainment!

Princeton Summer Theater productions are staged in Hamilton Murray Theater on the university campus, easily reached from New York by car or train. Take New Jersey Transit to the Princeton Junction station, then the shuttle train into Princeton. The shuttle ends a short walk from the theater, which is also walking distance from numerous restaurants.

For tickets, call the box office at 732-997-0205 or visit the ticket office online.

New In Print

Release day! Today’s the day for the print version of the anthology, The Best Laid Plans, edited by Canadian mystery writer Judy Penz Sheluk. She’s collected 21 stories from popular short story writers, and if you like your crime and chills in small bites, you’ll enjoy this! Here’s a quick rundown of these entertaining tales.

About my story, “Who They Are Now”: When an aging sportscaster is murdered in his bed under cover of a vicious Florida hurricane, is someone after his priceless collection of baseball memorabilia? The Delray Beach police are on the case, aided by his neighbor, a feisty but no-longer-young Hollywood star.

Order here from Amazon.